STUART — The research scientist who matched tiger shark teeth to bite wounds during an autopsy of the Treasure Coast’s only other shark fatality says young great white sharks — the fish of Jaws notoriety — are among suspects in Wednesday’s fatal attack off Stuart’s coast.
A 38-year-old kiteboard surfer, Stephen Howard Schafer, 38, of Stuart was attacked by sharks Wednesday afternoon and died from his injuries, according to the Martin County Sheriff’s Office.
The scientist, Grant Gilmore, said the size and type of shark in Wednesday’s attack can be learned the same way it was in the 1998 death of 9-year-old James Willie Tellasmon north of Jaycee Park in Vero Beach: By comparing characteristic bite patterns from among many species that live or visit off the Treasure Coast to wounds.
“It can be done,” Gilmore said. “It would be nice to have closure on this, to know what it was, especially since the man, tragically, died.”
Great whites prefer colder northern Atlantic Ocean waters and aren’t usually thought of as a Florida shark. But smaller 6- to 8-foot ones migrate to Florida’s east coast during winter.
Of the many types of sharks off the Treasure Coast, three of the four species known to attack humans — great hammerheads, bulls and tigers — prefer warm water. They leave the area or go deep in winter.
“The only other species that gathers in abundance out there in the winter are the juvenile great white sharks,” Gilmore said. They eat their way through a migrating parade of 3- to 4-foot sharpnose sharks that travel south from New England waters to Florida.
Cooler ocean water usually keeps great whites north of Cape Canaveral, Gilmore said, but this winter has been unusually cold.
Gilmore said it is very unusual to have a person bitten by a shark off Florida’s east coast this time of year. With only early news accounts for information, he wouldn’t guess which species was involved in Wednesday’s attack.
Doctoral work done by Jon Dodrill documented fishermen catching great whites off Florida’s east coast between Cape Canaveral and Daytona Beach. Gilmore was Dodrill’s professor when Dodrill did the census in the mid-1970s that is still considered an authoratative source for which sharks live and travel off Florida’s east coast.
Today, Dodrill runs Florida’s artificial reefs program.
The attack on James in 1998 happened in shallow water and was attributed to a young tiger shark about six feet long.
It was Martin County’s first fatal shark attack, according to records going back to 1882.
About 4 p.m. Wednesday, a lifeguard was looking through his binoculars and saw Schafer, the kiteboard surfer, in distress about a quarter of a mile off shore from an unguarded beach just south of Stuart Beach, officials said.
When the lifeguard paddled out to Schafer, he was encircled by sharks, officials said.
The lifeguard put Schafer on his rescue board and paddled to shore where Schafer said he had been bitten by a shark, authorities said. Officials performed cardiopulmonary resuscitation on the victim, who had multiple bite wounds, and he was rushed to Martin Memorial North Medical Center, where he later died.
Schafer’s friends said they are shocked by his death.
“I’ve never heard of multiple sharks in this area surrounding someone and fatally wounding him,” said the victim’s childhood friend, Teague Taylor, 36. “He was the nicest person ever.”
Normally, sharks appear in the area to feast on bait fish migrating to the area.
Taylor said he was surprised to see the sharks because they normally come around the spring. On Tuesday, the day before the fatal attack, Taylor said he was surfing near where his friend was attacked and he saw several sharks.
“You always think in the back of your mind that they (sharks) are out there,” he said.
Jordan Schwartz, who has known Schafer for five years, said he was a very experienced kiteboard surfer.
“He was a super nice guy. Always mellow. I don’t think he had any enemies,” he said.
Including Wednesday’s fatal attack, there have been about 14 deaths in Florida attributed to sharks, according to records provided by University of Florida Museum of Natural History.
REDUCING RISK OF SHARK ATTACKS
Always stay in groups; sharks are more likely to attack a lone person.
Do not wander too far from shore — this isolates an individual and additionally places one far away from assistance.
Avoid being in the water during darkness or twilight hours when sharks are most active and have a competitive sensory advantage.
Do not enter the water if bleeding or if menstruating — a shark’s olfactory ability is acute, and sharks are attracted to blood.
Do not wear shiny jewelry because the reflected light resembles the sheen of fish scales.
Use extra caution when waters are murky and avoid uneven tanning and bright-colored clothing — sharks see contrast particularly well.
Refrain from excess splashing, and do not allow pets in the water because of their erratic movements.
The International Shark Attack File Web site, University of Florida Museum of Natural History, www.flmnh.ufl.edu/fish/Sharks/ISAF/ISAF.htm
TREASURE COAST SHARK ATTACKS
Indian River County: 17 (one fatal, 1998)
St. Lucie County: 29 (none fatal)
Martin County: 28 (one fatal, 2010)
Source: International Shark Attack File at the University of Florida Museum of Natural History and media reports
SHARK ENCOUNTER OCCURRENCES
Attacks are most common in Central Florida. Here’s a look at unprovoked attacks in the state from 1882 to 2008.
58: Palm Beach
29: St. Lucie
17: Indian River
19: Florida Keys
Source: International Shark Attack File at the University of Florida Museum of National History.